Sunday, 19 October 2014

THE BIG SLEEP – bedtime for tortoises

It’s that time of year when certain creatures are getting ready for bed. This week tortoises around the UK will be stretching and yawning, finding somewhere warm to curl up and settling down to sleep for the winter.  Coincidentally the launch of a new teenage Mutant Ninja turtle’s movie   reminds me why my youngest son insisted we shelled out hundreds of pounds on a pair of tortoise in the first place!  And over at The Lake District Wildlife Park Margaret, the park's female tortoise, has laid 15 eggs, four of which have now hatched

What is our fascination with pets that are only awake for half of the year?

Long –term partners Shelly and Scotty are poking their heads out of their house, sniffing the October air and deciding that it really is a little too chilly for their usual stroll round the grounds.  The couple have had a good summer sun-bathing, enjoying meals on the lawn and rock climbing. But the nights are drawing in, the leaves are falling and it is looking more and more like bed-time for this pair of Mediterranean Tortoises who are preparing for hibernation 2014.
I have owned Shelley and Scotty for 13 years. They joined the family as tiny 3 month olds, no bigger than a 50 pence piece each, and they spent their first few months with us in a heated tank. Nowadays they have the run of the walled garden, their own rockery, a small wooden house and as much dandelion as they can eat. At least for six months a year. What are the advantages of owning these part-time pets?
·         Tortoises can only be bought from registered breeders, so they are not a cheap purchase. However, once you have adopted them, they are incredibly low maintenance – requiring the mimunun of attention and happy to eat garden weeds. They can also live up to 150 years so you certainly get your moneys’ worth!

·         As a travel writer I never waste a chance to spot the tortoises foreign cousins.   In Mauritius and on Prison Island in Zanzibar I have seen some giant tortoises which truly do resemble Super-Sized Scotty and Shelley. On the sleepy Caribbean island of Barbuda red-footed tortoises roam freely down the road only pausing to nibble on  a tasty leaf or plant
·         Finding the tortoises after their many hiding games is a family past time. They have buried themselves for days on end, emerging covered in soil, or have sheltered in the shed or even got into the house and hidden under the cooker, only to appear quite non-plussed and deposited back outside
·         Identifying new foods for them is a botanical lesson, we know they like dandelion but milk thistle and other common garden plants are also enjoyed. They love cucumber in the hot weather (they rarely drink water) and even the occasional strawberry
·         Establishing their gender is an entertainment in itself. We were told Scotty was male an Shelly was female, although it is difficult to tell especially with young tortoise, One  annual check with the tortoise vet revealed that Shelly has a very large tail for a female, implying that this tortoise may be more of a Percy Shelly than a Shelly Winters.  The discovery doesn’t seem to have affected their relationship
·         We look forward to greeting them next March. Christmas and New Year celebrations may pass them by, but they will have a great spring and summer in 2015

Tuesday, 14 October 2014



Despite accounting for just 0.1% of the world’s landmass, Costa Rica contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity, across four mountain ranges, 800 miles of coastline, 200 volcanic formations and hundreds of national parks, most of which is reasonably accessible from the capital San Jose.
The incredibly varied topography means you can cruise cloud forest one day, visit active volcanoes the next, and relax on a pristine white beach. Adventure experiences include zipping through canopy lines hundreds of metres long and riding the rough surf of the Pacific. Bathing in natural hot springs and living the cowboy life on a working carral are also on offer here.
But most people head here to get close to wildlife, notably cuddly sloths, white faced capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys and hundreds of tropical birds including the gorgeous quetzal – called by some birdwatchers the most beautiful bird in the world
Costa Rica prides itself on its green credentials and this, together with its peaceful democracy (it has had no army since 1948) and abundance of natural beauty has earned it the name ‘the world’s happiest country’
Where happier to get close to nature than in one of the country’s eco-lodges.  They are found throughout Costa Rica, many in lush jungle in the south near the Pacific Gulf. Increasingly sophisticated with good food, stylish accommodation in wooden cabins and the opportunity to experience nature first-hand they allow visitors to make minimal impact without sacrificing creature comforts. Early morning tours let you see the rain forest wake up and leisurely kayak tours take you past rich mangrove forests alive with snakes, crocodiles, monkeys galore, sloths and toucans and parrots.
Many offer activities including fishing, yoga and chocolate making. Using beans from the forest, the staff at one lodge, Playa Nicuesa near Golfito, which is built on the site of a disused cocoa plantation, shows guests how to peel, roast and grind the cocoa before cooking with sugar to make a delicious chocolate paste which can be rolled or formed into lovely sweets. They taste best washed down with a cup of finest Costa Rican coffee
Monteverde’s rare ecosystem is internationally famous as one of the most extensive cloud forests in Central America. At 5,900 ft., this natural sanctuary has more than 2,500 different types of plants and animals, including 400 species of birds Guided natural history walks take you through the Monteverde Reserve which is home to jaguars and pumas. There’s also a zip-line tour of the reserve where you look down on mammals such as the fuzzy martilla.    But the best   way to see the lush cloud forest and its inhabitants is by walking on hanging bridges which take you alongside the canopy of trees.
In the early 1950s, a group of Quakers from the United States left their homes in Alabama and arrived in Monteverde at a time when the region was just beginning to be settled. The Quakers, fleeing the United States to avoid being drafted into the Korean War, and attracted by the fact that Costa Rica had no army, established a simple life in Monteverde centred on dairy and cheese production. Some of these families helped establish the Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves some 20 years later. To this day they have an influence on the region, including owning hotels. The pretty town of St Elena looks like a Swiss village nestling beneath the misty mountains and has lively restaurants, hostels and bars filled with hikers and bird spotters.
The cattle ranching region of Guanacaste is also home to the Rincon de la Vieja volcano, a thermally active area. Adventure junkies will thrive on the activities on offer here from zip wires, Tarzan swings, white water rafting, canyoning, tubing  and horseback riding  after which a dip in the hot natural springs provides a welcome relief to aching limbs.  On the edge of the national park wannabe cowboys can stay at working cattle ranches with real hacienda style accommodation available and all the adventure tours on the doorstep

The Pacific Coast has some beautiful beaches with conditions that offer some of the best surfing in this part of the world.  Towns such as Nosara are packed with bright driftwood signs pointing to surf shacks and sunset bars. Beaches have an abandoned Robinson-Crusoe feel with rickety shelters constructed from wood and sticks with covers of dried palm leaves
Costa Rica also has a Caribbean coastline, which has a different atmosphere with a cultural mix of Afro Caribbean, Tico ( the name Costa Ricans give themselves) and old hippy vive. Puerto Viejo has recently become a hit with tourists and has stunning white-sand beaches, tropical vegetation and is close to parks including a Sloth sanctuary 
There are no direct flights from the UK to Costa Rica.
Iberia ( flies daily to the Costa Rican capital San Jose via Madrid.
American Airlines (020 7365 0777; and British Airways (0844 493 0787; fly via Miami. With British Airways you need to connect to an American Airlines flight
Costa Rica has two seasons; the Dry Season from December-April and the Green (Or Rainy) Season from May-November. However it doesn’t rain all the time during the Green season – showers tend to be brief - and this can be a pleasant, and more affordable, time to travel

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